An angry group of protesters overwhelmed a South Beach press conference on Friday morning, where Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber attempted to “set the record straight” on claims from opponents in an already muddy fight over a ballot question that asks if voters want to roll back alcohol sales from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m.
The protesters, who identified themselves as South Beach hospitality workers, drowned out Gelber and his invited speakers with their jeers. They waved signs opposing the 2 a.m. referendum and calling for Gelber’s resignation, chanted in unison and forced Gelber to end the press conference without taking questions as they followed him to his car two blocks away.
Gelber and former Mayor Philip Levine, who are campaigning to pass a 2 a.m. ban, scheduled the press conference days after audio leaked from a meeting they held with hoteliers and developers last month to discuss a campaign to redevelop the entertainment district. They called the press conference not to talk about the audio, but to address arguments from Ocean Drive bar owners that an earlier last call would plunge the city into financial ruin and worsen street parties in South Beach.
But protesters didn’t give them the chance, yelling and chanting so loudly that reporters could not hear Gelber or the guest speakers. The detractors called attention to the meeting — which Gelber and Levine have said was benign — and said the 2 a.m. cutoff could cost them their jobs and would not curb crime in South Beach.
“He’s lying!” one protester, who gave his name only as Wis, yelled as Gelber attempted to do an interview with a TV reporter on the sidewalk near the Art Deco Welcome Center.
The crowd of a few dozen people followed Gelber as he attempted to give interviews after the press conference, and as he walked from Ocean Drive to where his car was parked on Collins Avenue. Some followed him on foot and by scooter as he drove away. The protest wasn’t entirely peaceful, according to Gelber’s campaign manager, Christian Ulvert, who said he was struck by someone during Gelber’s TV interview near the Welcome Center.
“This is the mentality that runs our most iconic strip, you don’t need to know much more than that,” Gelber, who is running for reelection, said in an interview after the protest. “The way they conducted themselves so profanely, in fact even violently, tells you all you need to know.”
The election is scheduled for Nov. 2.
Friday’s demonstration marked the second time in 10 days that hospitality workers protested against the 2 a.m. referendum. The first was at City Hall during a City Commission meeting. But Friday’s protest was more in-your-face, and the leaked audio, which critics of the mayor call proof of a financial motive to kill clubs and bars, gave protesters extra fuel to drive their anger.
Gelber, who denied any wrongdoing, could be heard in the recording of the video meeting promising developers and other business leaders that he would support their ideas to redevelop the city’s entertainment district. Levine, who tried unsuccessfully to tame Ocean Drive when he was mayor, discussed raising campaign cash to promote their efforts.
“They’re liars. There’s a leaked tape online where it shows that there’s a development scheme,” said Wis, who said he was a cook at Mango’s Tropical Cafe. “They’re just trying to make s--- cheap so they can buy it and then make a fortune.”
The protest in Lummus Park is the latest development in a contentious battle between defenders of the proposal, who argue the rollback will help reduce crime, and business owners who say the non-binding referendum is an excuse from city officials to “choke” Ocean Drive establishments and bring developers to rebuild the tourism corridor. Some late-night businesses, including Mango’s Tropical Cafe, have made six-figure investments on the campaign opposing the rollback.
The referendum is a non-binding straw ballot question. It asks voters if they would support changing the 5 a.m. closing time to 2 a.m. throughout the city “with specific locations and related restrictions and exceptions, to be determined” by the City Commission. Voters in 2017 — the year Gelber was first elected mayor — rejected a similar but binding ballot question asking if the city should stop certain booze sales at 2 a.m. on Ocean Drive.
Gelber said the press conference was meant to highlight the groups that have supported the referendum, including the assemblage of business leaders who make up the Ocean Drive Association and the preservationist group Miami Design Preservation League.
Gelber held up campaign mail ads from the political committee opposing the 2 a.m. referendum, which he called “lies.” He also brought with him a printout of a photo showing a sign the Clevelander hotel displayed during spring break which said “Misbehavior Encouraged.”
He was joined by other supporters of the 2 a.m. referendum, like Levine, Joe’s Stone Crab owner Stephen Sawitz, Ocean Drive Association Chairman Jonathan Plutzik and Miami Design Preservation League Executive Director Daniel Ciraldo. Some resident activists also stood by Gelber’s side.
“What you have right now are two sets of people. You have the group of people who very much want to act like this and that’s what you get,” Gelber said, referencing the protest, “or you have residents like the ones behind me who care deeply about our community.”
He and supporters of the referendum say the city needs to change South Beach’s brand from all-night-party destination to a cultural and more upscale area. The 2 a.m. ban, he said, would spur redevelopment and reduce crime because it would drive out the hard-party business model he says contributes to the disorder and crime on the streets.
Asked if he thought the press conference was successful, Gelber said it was “unintentionally successful” because the protesters “didn’t look like the kind of people you want in your city.”
“I think we certainly showed the community what we’re dealing with,” he told the Miami Herald. “If people wondered whether this group of operators have the best intentions or not, they saw it here. This is an incredibly disorderly, rude group that really only cares about their own selves, their profits and they don’t really care about the community.”
Gelber’s campaign manager, Democratic political consultant Ulvert, said he was shocked by how the “angry mob” of protesters behaved. He said on Facebook that a “paid protester” punched him in the back and that he feared for his life.
“I found myself fearing for my life,” said Ulvert, who organized the press conference. “It was a sad reminder that others will go to extremes no matter the consequences and it speaks to the sad state of affairs of our country’s political discourse.”
Gelber also accused the protesters of being paid to crash his press conference.
David Wallack, the owner of Mango’s, told reporters after the protest that he had “no idea” if the protesters were being paid but he said they represented different businesses. A spokesman for Citizens for a Safe Miami Beach, the political committee formed to oppose the 2 a.m. referendum, said the PAC did not organize the protest and that those involved were hospitality workers from Ocean’s 10, the Clevelander and Mango’s.
“All of these people that you see here are working people, and quite frankly no matter what they’re doing to help their jobs and protect their families,” Wallack said, trailing off. “You think Levine goes anywhere not being paid to do it?”
Frank Coniglio, who works at Mango’s as a beverage manager, said he protested Friday to protect his job.
“We need to be heard,” he said. “They’re attacking our livelihoods. Our family.”
He said the protest was a success, and that he hopes the public will see how workers are fighting against the referendum.
He said more policing is needed in South Beach, but that alcohol sales are not related to the crime in the area. He made reference to the leaked audio, which he said showed politicians are more interested in developing the city rather than protecting residents from crime.
“I hope residents see us fighting for our jobs and take a look at what’s been going on in the city behind the scenes in private meetings and put two and two together, that they’re not here for them,” Coniglio said. “They’re here for the developers in closed rooms.”